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Willow Bringing Joy

May 13, 2020

A 1-year-old black Labradoodle named Willow helped brighten the lives of St. Marys Catholic Elementary School students this year, and is still doing so for some during the coronavirus closure.

Kim Sloff, inclusion coordinator at the school, is an avid animal lover. Her son was diagnosed with autism at 2 years old, and the family looked into a therapy dog then, but found it would be costly.

Sloff’s background includes working as a preschool aid and in mental health and case work, she said. Since the school doesn’t have a special education department, her position was developed to better serve children with special needs.

In February 2019, she attended an inclusion conference, visiting a school with a therapy dog in action, where the idea of securing one for the St. Marys school was inspired.

The Sloff family got Willow when she was a puppy. She’s classified as an emotional support dog, and was officially certified in February of this year.

“She went into the school every day as a puppy and walked around with me,” she said. “I couldn’t believe how she took to the process at just five months old. She became a fixture immediately, and the kids loved her.”

Sloff’s responsibilities include tutoring, testing and reading to children, she said, many of whom have extreme test anxiety or struggle with behavioral issues. Some children will sit and pet Willow for comfort and for others she is part of a “reward” program.

“If a student comes in upset, by the time they leave us, they’re laughing and smiling,” Sloff said.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, Sloff says she has been doing tutoring sessions via video chat, and Willow will sit next to her. She has sent a video of herself and Willow to a boy struggling at home during the closure.

“It made his day,” she said.

Willow is such a part of the school that she is even pictured in the yearbook under faculty, Sloff adds.

Not just during quarantine, but all the time, Willow brings so much comfort and unconditional love to Sloff and her family’s life, she said, referring to her as her “kindred spirit.”

“I have an absolute connection with her I’ve never had with any animal,” she said.

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